By ELISABETH BUMILLER
Shortly after 4:20 a.m. on Easter Sunday, a pair of flag-covered cases with the remains of two Marines, both killed the previous week in Afghanistan, were carried out of the belly of a C-17 into the sight of their waiting families.
As two mothers, a widow and a knot of other kin watched from the tarmac, the bodies of Sgt. Frank J. World, 25, of Buffalo and Lance Cpl. Tyler O. Griffin, 19, of Voluntown, Conn., were loaded into a large van. Marines in white gloves and camouflage fatigues gave a final salute in the dark chill, then marched in formation behind the van as it rolled slowly toward the base mortuary, the largest in the nation.
In the past year, as the remains of 462 service members along with nearly 2,000 relatives have passed through Dover, the experience on the flight line has become as common as it is excruciating. Now, to meet the demand and to accommodate what Dover officials expect to be increasing casualties from Afghanistan, the military has embarked on a building surge at this main entry point for the nation’s war dead.
In January, Dover opened the Center for the Families of the Fallen, a $1.6 million, 6,000-square-foot space of soft lighting and earth-toned furniture where parents, spouses, children, siblings and other relatives assemble before they are taken to the flight line. On May 1, there is to be a groundbreaking for a new $4.5 million hotel for families who need to spend the night. The same day, ground will also be broken on what Dover officials are calling a meditation center, a nondenominational space with an adjacent garden where relatives can pray or be alone.
The building boom is under way as the Iraq war is winding down — some 50,000 American troops are set to withdraw from the country between now and August — and as President Obama has set July 2011 for the start of withdrawals from Afghanistan. But most of the 30,000 extra troops Mr. Obama ordered to Afghanistan are still due to arrive this summer, bringing the total American force in that country to nearly 100,000. Heavy fighting is expected in the months ahead.
“We would truly like to be out of business,” said Col. Robert H. Edmondson, the commander of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover. “Clearly, there’s a big requirement right now, and it’s a real requirement. So we have to deal with that.”
The need to provide for families at the base began a year ago last week, when a new Pentagon policy reversed an 18-year ban on photographs of the flag-covered cases and allowed news coverage, if relatives wished, of the return of the war dead. At the same time, the military began paying travel and lodging expenses for families who wanted to be present for the transfers. Before then, expenses were not paid and families were not encouraged to come.
Dover officials had no idea how many families would travel to witness the 15-minute transfers, but so far about 75 percent have. Some 55 percent of families have allowed news coverage, these days often just a single Associated Press photographer. (Steve Ruark, 80 trips to Dover since last May.)
Of the 462 service members whose remains have come through Dover from April 5, 2009, the first day of the new policy, to this past Thursday, a great majority — 332 — were killed in Afghanistan.
Dover officials acknowledge that the new amenities can hardly soften the impact and that many family members are so stunned — typically they arrive at Dover only 24 or 36 hours after they have been notified of a loved one’s death — that they barely notice the surroundings. Chaplains have learned to be ready to catch family members, typically mothers, whose knees sometimes buckle when they first see the flag-covered cases of their children come off the planes. Because of military schedules, the flights land at any time, but often in the middle of the night.
“You’re kind of numb, and getting up that early in the morning, you’re even number,” Sergeant World’s mother, Susan World-Missana, said by telephone from Buffalo a few days after the return of the body of her son, who was killed by a homemade bomb near the southern Afghan town of Marja. Sergeant World left behind a wife, Beth World, and a 3-year-old son and a 2-month-old daughter he had never met. He was due home in two months.
The family center, Mrs. World-Missana said, “looked like a mortuary, but it was impressive.”
“I mean, it was very nice,” she added. “But due to the circumstances, I don’t think anything’s going to matter.”
The idea for the family center came in large part from Suzie Schwartz, the wife of Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff. The couple was at Dover one night last June to meet with families in a crowded chapel lobby, one of the only spaces available at the time. Mrs. Schwartz watched as one mother’s anger about the death of her daughter spilled over to the others grieving in the room.
“She just kept saying, ‘It’s my little girl,’ ” Mrs. Schwartz recalled. “She was staring at this other family. They were probably three feet away from her. And this family was just crying uncontrollably. And I watched her face, and she was just ready to explode.”
Appalled by the cramped quarters and lack of privacy, Mrs. Schwartz told her husband that something had to be done.
The family center opened its doors a little more than six months later. “On behalf of a grateful nation” is emblazoned on a wall in the reception area. Inside are a large room with separate seating areas, additional private rooms, a kitchen and a children’s room with a crib and toys. There are diaper changing areas in the women’s room — and in the men’s room, too. “It was again one of those recognitions that not all of our fallen service members are male,” said S. Todd Rose, the director of the mortuary affairs division at Dover. Chaplains, mental health professionals and other staff members are on hand to greet the families.
The nine-suite hotel is to be built by the Fisher House Foundation, which erects free lodging near military hospitals for the families of recuperating service members. This Fisher House, as they are called, is to open in the fall and will be built, like the others, largely with donations. Mr. Obama, who witnessed the return to Dover of 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan this past October, gave the foundation $250,000 of his 2009 Nobel Prize money, most of which will go to the new Dover lodging. For now the military puts families up in town.
Kenneth Fisher, the chairman of the Fisher House Foundation, said one of the first questions he asked was whether the new lodging at Dover would “stand the test of time.” Like the officials at Dover, he decided there would be a need beyond the current wars. Victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon were brought to Dover, as were the remains of the seven astronauts who died in the 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Since 1955, the remains of some 60,000 service members and civilians have passed through Dover.
For now, the center is focused on people like Larry World, Sergeant World’s older brother, who stood witness on the Dover tarmac on Easter morning after the staff at the family center had tried their best to comfort him. “There’s really nothing that can ease your pain,” Mr. World said, “but it was professional and it had a caring touch to it.”
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski